Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pope Francis, Dialogue and Affirmative Orthodoxy

On a busy day in the parish, the only real Pope news I managed to catch was the address he gave to the U.S. Bishops at Midday Prayer at the St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington. I stopped and read the whole thing, and it seriously moved me. There is so much in this homily, and I highlighted three points earlier. The emphasis on dialogue in the address struck me, and these are some more fleshed out thoughts on the subject.
Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).
And then,
The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society.  I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.  The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it.  Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.  Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.  Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing. (Emphases added.) 
Dialogue is a word that is regarded with suspicion by many younger American clergy, and other Catholics (who get labelled "conservative."). This is borne out of our experience of an approach to dialogue that seems to compromise truth, that becomes a method towards relativism, and an underlying assumption that truth claims are divisive, and that truth itself is inaccessible.  Speaking in 2004, in the twilight of John Paul II's papacy, at the now disappeared "Common Ground" initiative (started by Cardinal Bernardin during a time when "polarization" in the Church was causing anxiety in some circles), John Allen's analysis of this suspicion towards "dialogue" among younger Catholics is fairly accurate:
[W]e must foster a spirituality of dialogue that does not come at the expense of a full-bodied expression of Catholic identity. There is no future for dialogue if convinced Catholics sense the price of admission is setting aside their convictions. ... Today, I would assert that the strongest single impulse in the Christian community pivots on identity - the desire for a robust assertion of what it means to be a Christian. You can't explain the phenomenal success of "The Passion of the Christ" without understanding this impulse. It is perhaps most strongly felt by younger generations whose members did not acquire a strong sense of identity either in the home or in school, even Catholic schools. Hence the spirituality of dialogue needed is one that combines a vigorous assertion of identity, opening up our distinctive language and rituals and worldview to those who hunger for them, without ending up in a "Taliban Catholicism" that knows only how to excoriate and condemn.
The following year, Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope, and the emphasis on shoring up Catholic identity got a huge boost in the U.S. Church. I think it is unfair to suggest, as many (within the Church!) do, that this project only ended up with a so-called "Taliban Catholicism" that "knows only how to excoriate and condemn." In 2005, as a generally clueless lay campus minister, I stumbled upon the Evangelical Catholic initiative out of Madison, WI, and attended their annual conference (In fact, I was there when St. John Paul II died), and was struck by the joy, enthusiasm, and zeal of young, committed, orthodox Catholics, on fire, eager to reach out, but hardly focused only on excoriating and condemnation. This wasn't "Taliban Catholicism," but what John Allen, again, called Pope Benedict's Affirmative Orthodoxy, "a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key."

There are some, I think, who would see in this call by Pope Francis, a call to a shift in tone and style. I think it would be a mistake to understand this as a shift to precisely as that kind of dialogue that requires the sacrificing of convictions as the price of admission. It seems more appropriate that this is also "affirmative orthodoxy" in a Franciscan key. Francis has never suggested an abandonment of solid commitments. Consider this from his address to the Brazilian Bishops over World Youth Day in 2013: "What is needed is a solid human, cultural, effective, spiritual and doctrinal formation." In the same paragraph he urges the Bishops to invest personally in quality formation for their future priests, and not to be satisfied with simply delegating this task.

Of course, Pope Francis, quite famously in that early interview with Fr. Spadaro SJ,  a harbinger of his free-wheeling style, said this,
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

Predictably, everyone had a spittle-flecked nutty over this. But listen to these words now:
And when you have so little time you can't say everything you want to say about “no.” Firstly you have to know what we really want, right? Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer.
That was Pope Benedict, in response to a question as to why he didn't speak at all about homosexual marriage, abortion or contraception at ... the World Meeting of Families in Valencia in 2006!

Pope Francis clearly said today that he is speaking in continuity with his predecessors. His call to humble parrhesia, to be a Church that speaks from a position of poverty, is one that is eminently in line with his immediate predecessor.
One might say that a church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power. The Church is at the service of Another; it does not serve itself, seeking to be a strong body, but it strives to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths, the great powers of love and of reconciliation that appeared in this figure and that come always from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this sense, the Church does not seek to be attractive, but rather to make herself transparent for Jesus Christ. And in the measure in which the Church is not for herself, as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wishes to have power, but simply is herself the voice of Another, she becomes truly transparent to the great figure of Jesus Christ and the great truths that he has brought to humanity. (Emphasis added.) 

but we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has redeemed us.  
Consequently, only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn. (Emphasis added.)
The first is Pope Benedict, on his Apostolic Voyage to England in 2010. The following two are from today's address by Pope Francis.

No, they're not the same person. There's a lot that is different, yes. But, this call to dialogue is not the same as a call to endless conversations about nothing, or a relativistic abandonment of truth claims. It is, as the Pope says, the method for boldly proclaiming the Gospel in an effective way, in a way that it will be heard better. It is not enough to be content with simply proclaiming an uncomfortable truth. It has to be, first of all, lived. It has to be proclaimed in humility, not in condescension and arrogance. It has to be within the context of a relationship of trust and love, and always, appealing to the freedom of the recipient. While the Lord certainly had harsh words (pace Pope Francis!), though they were mainly directed to the religious leaders of his time (but not always. Go read Luke 16:16, for instance), his way of approaching people was to always awaken their freedom. And yes, there had to be, eventually, a decisive response. But simply, so to speak, dropping a grenade of an inconvenient truth, and then walking away, is not how He operated.

In 2005, I encountered FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, for the first time at that Evangelical Catholic conference in Madison. Since then, they have grown tremendously. Few movements in the Church in the United States embody the affirmative orthodoxy that was so close to the heart of Pope Benedict, and that also animates Pope Francis, as FOCUS. They are solidly orthodox, committed to a clear Catholic identity, passionate about Jesus Christ and His Gospel, yet willing to go out, willing to risk an accident in the street, to encounter people as persons first, to emphasize relationship over ideological positions. And the fruit that has been born is tremendous. Earlier this year, Curtis Martin gave a rousing talk to the U.S. Bishops on evangelization. I think Pope Francis would have thoroughly approved. 

The Pope's Address to the US Bishops

Image from the NYT story.
The Holy Father's address to the U.S. Bishops is remarkable. (As is the fact that the only English text I can find right now is hosted by the New York Times!)

Three initial thoughts: the call to dialogue (a word that, among younger clergy, and some Catholics is regarded with suspicion. It brings to mind an attitude of dilution, and as a means to relativizing all truth claims). However, I urge a close, open read to these words of the Holy Father, and his focus on the means of proclaiming the "bold speech" (parrhesia) of the Gospel:
The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.
Then, there is the stirring call of Bishops to be fathers to their priests, and then this list of temptations facing priestly ministry. Honestly, I could just hear the Pope, such a father!, speaking this to me and it brought tears to my eyes:
Let this closeness be expressed in a special way towards your priests. Support them, so that they can continue to serve Christ with an undivided heart, for this alone can bring fulfillment to ministers of Christ. I urge you, then, not to let them be content with half-measures. Find ways to encourage their spiritual growth, lest they yield to the temptation to become notaries and bureaucrats, but instead reflect the motherhood of the Church, which gives birth to and raises her sons and daughters. Be vigilant lest they tire of getting up to answer those who knock on their door by night, just when they feel entitled to rest (Lk 11:5-8). Train them to be ready to stop, care for, soothe, lift up and assist those who, “by chance” find themselves stripped of all they thought they had (Lk 10:29-37).
And third: just how much his speech, his talk, is permeated by the Gospel, by references to the Gospels, and to the person and personality of Jesus.

[This was first posted this afternoon on Facebook.] 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tracking Pope Francis into the US

Courtesy Popeemoji
This afternoon was spent tracking the arrival of the Holy Father's plane, with the call sign AZ4001, on Flightradar24. (Within the US, the Holy Father's aircraft, an American Airlines plane, will have the callsign "Shepherd One." According to that CNN piece, however, it's number will not be made public, and so it won't be trackable on public flight tracking websites.)

It was such an exciting moment, to realize that the Pope was over American Airspace!

The plane did several 360s over eastern North Carolina, just south of Greenville. Presumably, it made good time from Santiago de Cuba, and was waiting for the officially published landing time of 1600.

The plane is out of the holding pattern and descending
[This didn't prevent some from ascribing sinister motives: I first saw Catholic Vote say it (without attribution to the source in the headline) on Facebook, and then saw the link to the Atlantic that reported that the President was running late and had asked the Pope's flight to be delayed! (CV initially put it rather bluntly that Obama had ordered the Pope into a holding pattern, generating a number of outraged comments on Facebook). Both places have since updated their stories to indicated this was nothing untoward or impolite. The plane was early, and landed around 1600, and the President was waiting, with the Vice President, and several members of the U.S. hierarchy, to greet the Pope.]

I had a window open with the air traffic control feed for Potomac Approach via LiveATC. Around 345 pm I heard, "Alitalia four zero zero one heavy, cleared runway one left approach," and a confirmation  from the pilots! And then, "Alitalia four zero zero one heavy, contact Andrews tower!" A quick switch to the live feed from the Washington Post on YouTube (the source of all the following screenshots), after AZ4001 landed at Andrews Air Force Base.

He's on the ground! 

The first glimpse of the Holy Father on U.S. soil, to raucous cheers from the gathered crowds!

Ciao! Pope Francis drives away in a Fiat 500L, with SCV 1 plates. (The car looked so tiny in the midst of the giant vehicles in the rest of the motorcade!) 

An uncommon sight: POTUS hobnobbing with the U.S. Bishops. To the right of Michelle Obama is Cardinal Di Nardo of Houston. To the right of POTUS, looking rather short, Bishop Loverde of Arlington; in front of him, Bishop Holley of Washington DC. The handshake is with Archbishop Lori of Baltimore.
I cheered and clapped loudly at the first glimpse of the Pope (luckily, almost everyone else had left for the day at the office ...:)) ... the figure of the Pope, the visible center of unity of the Church, the Vicar of Christ ... it arouses such a deep filial affection and love in a Catholic's heart! (I recall feeling exactly the same on seeing Pope Benedict on television during his 2008 visit to the U.S.)

It was an exciting few hours, and it was fun sharing it on Twitter and Facebook, and chatting on WhatsApp with my friend Harry (with the State Dept. at our Embassy in New Delhi), a fellow devout Catholic and aviation buff, who was up late being as nerdy as ever.

PETER IS HERE! Welcome Holy Father!

Please pray for a safe visit, and that the Lord shower many graces on our country as we pay close attention to the Vicar of Christ's words and actions while he is with us.

UPDATE: The full-transcript of the Holy Father's remarks to the press on the flight from Cuba are now available. Here's one little bit:
I’m sure that I haven't said anything more than what’s written in the social doctrine of the Church. On another flight, a colleague asked me if I had reached out a hand to the popular movements and asked me, “But is the Church going to follow you?” I told him, “I’m the one following the Church.” And in this it seems that I’m not wrong. I believe that I never said a thing that wasn’t the social doctrine of the Church. Things can be explained, possibly an explanation gave an impression of being a little “to the left”, but it would be an error of explanation. No, my doctrine on this, in Laudato si', on economic imperialism, all of this, is the social doctrine of the Church. And it if necessary, I’ll recite the creed. I am available to do that, eh.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Memories of a previous Papal visit to North America

(Image from the Archdiocese of Toronto blog.)
In 2002, I was a (lay) campus minister at the St. Thomas More Center at the University of South Carolina, in year two of what would be a nearly five year long stint there. The Holy Father, that is St. John Paul II, was coming to North America for World Youth Day. There were no plans from STM to go to WYD. The Diocese of Charleston's Youth Ministry office had organized something, but it was well beyond the budget of a layman in the Church's employ!

A few weeks out, my buddy Carl, from Charleston and I decided we'd go on our own. We registered at the WYD portal online, and were assigned accommodations at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, with the Newman Center there as our location for the WYD catecheses. [We lucked out in that we had dorm beds, and a hall bath and shower. So many others slept on gym floors in parish halls!] We found relatively cheap airfare to Toronto and back, and off we went. [Our flight connected in Philadelphia, I recall, and was oversold. We volunteered, were booked in First on a later flight, which actually ended up arriving earlier than our original flight!]

Thirteen years out, a lot of the details are hazy, but I do recall just what an amazing atmosphere it was -- it seemed that everyone was Catholic! I recall the early morning breakfasts at the Newman Center, and walking around downtown Toronto, and Tim Horton's and the CN tower, and Carl trying to speak Spanish after a few beers. Our catecheses were lead by (then) Bishop Dolan (newly appointed to Milwaukee, Bishop Roach (later head of ICEL), and Archbishop Exner (from Vancouver; retired in 2004). I don't recall much of content, but do remember the hand gestures to the P&W songs that preceded the catecheses. ("Yes Lord, Yes Lord, Yes Yes Lord!" -- I didn't like it then either ... :))

On Day 1, we got early to the fairgrounds where the Pope would make his first scheduled appearance at the opening Vespers. We wandered around, and then parked ourselves against a chainlink fence. A little later, much to my surprise, I heard my name being yelled. On the other side of the fence, a little distance away, there was another fence, and on the other side of that, a large group from upstate South Carolina. Two of our students from STM recognized me and were yelling and waving. Small Catholic world!

We didn't realize it at first, but that fence marked out the path of the papal motorcade. When we realized it, we hugged the fence, and guarded our position fiercely, as the crowds around and behind us grew. I recall that electrifying moment when the Popemobile approached -- first the motorcycles with police, the the Secret Service (or whatever they call them in Canada), and then the white vehicle. There were screams and yells, and everyone pushed against the fence. The Holy Father was looking away from us, but I got a few good photos and a great video clip. My heart filled with so much emotion, so much love! I loved this man, even though I had never met him. He represented the very center of the Church, a visible icon of Jesus Christ! I screamed at the top of my lungs and joined in the chants of "Viva il Papa" and "JP2 we love you!" I will never forget that.

There were other highlights as well. The giant closing Mass at an abandoned airfield outside Toronto, and walking miles and miles (sorry kilometeres and kilometers) to get there. Meeting up with a group from Carl's parish in Marietta (St. Ann's) and camping next to them overnight. It rained at night, and it was miserable, and water trickled through the tent, and the circle dances and music and drums and festivities went on all night. The porter-potties in the morning were truly horrendous. It continued storming through the morning, and then the Papal helicopter arrived, and the rain stopped and Mass began, and just as the Gospel was proclaimed (or perhaps it was when he started his homily), the clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine burst through and illuminated the stage.

Holy Communion was truly amazing (even though, I tend to be a little skeptical of distributing Holy Communion widely at giant papal mega-Masses; the risk of sacrilege and profanation is just too high.) ... a lay extraordinary minister (or perhaps it was a religious sister) stood at one point, and, like spokes going to the center of a wheel, lines formed all around her, and she turned and communicated each person at the front of each line. The Communion chant was "Nada te Turbe" (the beautiful poem by St. Teresa of Avila, set to simple Taize chant), and it felt like I was in heaven, and I wept openly.

That evening, hanging out with the group from St. Anne's at their hotel downtown, I spied a man lying on the sidewalk outside the lobby. It seemed like a homeless man, drunk. He wasn't very coherent. Then a, um, rather scantily clad lady approached and started talking to him. This lady-of-the-night knew him, and asked if I had some money for a cab fare for him. I went back in and we collected enough money, and then she called a taxi (I really don't recall if she had a cell phone or not!) and we put him in the cab and gave the cabbie the address. It was a strange little encounter, and, therefore, still in my memory.

I've scoured all my old photos on my hard drive, and any physical albums I still have, but I cannot find a single photograph from this memorable event. I have photos from 2001, but somehow, nothing from WYD. That video clip of JPII was on an analog video camera, with 8mm tapes. I have no idea where, in my many moves since then, it's gone.

However, I'm still in touch with one of those two students I mentioned above. She's actually a pretty well known Catholic blogger, and she will be one of the presenters at the upcoming World Meeting of Families with Pope Francis this week. She just wrote a great blog about how to prepare to go to a Papal mass event (heh), and shared her experiences from WYD 2002. And she kindly sent me a photo she found as she was preparing to write that post. This is yours truly, yelling at their group, across the fence, in Toronto in 2002. Thanks Lacy!

I have more bulk now, and a lot less hair. Carl, behind me swigging water, looks exactly
the same today as he did then, sonofagun!
A visit from the Holy Father is a time of such grace. I look forward to our parish pilgrimage, some 108 people, actually from all across the Archdiocese, who will be going up to Philadelphia this coming weekend to encounter Francis, Bishop of Rome. I have heard stories of how WYD in 1992 in Denver changed the lives of folks, and the same about WYD in 2002 and later. How will the Lord move us, through Pope Francis, in 2015? 

Get ready to be uncomfortable!

Get out of your comfort zone!

This is a great piece by Dr. John Cavadini of the NY Daily News
What if, even just for the period of his U.S. visit, we were to allow ourselves, each in our own way, to follow his rhetoric into a zone of discomfort? Would we, oddly, find ourselves meeting there?
Read the rest.

This week, my dear fellow Catholics in the US, let us all pray for the Holy Father as comes to our shores. It is going to be an exciting time and a time of great grace and opportunity, as the Successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff, the Servant of the Servants of God, or as he prefers to call himself, Francis, Bishop of Rome, will be in our midst.

The media will of course look at everything from solely a social and political angle, and attempt to squeeze him into this or that mould. The narrative of a bold reformer, unlike his stodgy predecessors, the only Pope to have every kissed a baby and smiled at anyone, is already deeply entrenched. Read what the Holy Father says, from reliable sources (the Vatican, EWTN, the USCCB). I wouldn't trust AP, Reuters, the AJC, the NYT, the WaPo in their reporting one bit. Nor the TV stations.

But really, let it be. Don't fret The whole nation (indeed the whole world) will be looking at the Holy Father. And he will, as he always does, so simply, so disarmingly, invite us to look at Jesus Christ.

And pray that you are able to hear his words directed at you. If you hear him say something and think, "Aha! He got those people good over there! Those crazy [fill-in-the-blank-label], who think they're Catholic/good/right, but ... " well, we're doing the same thing. We're wanting to fit him into our own preconceived notions and ideas. We're judging others, and, really, condemning ourselves, and not actually facing reality and looking at what the Lord is doing right now!

The Lord and His Gospel transcend all this. And He always calls us out of our complacency and comfort, to live a life of service, of sacrifice, of love. To seek the good of others, to pursue justice, to give our lives away.

And in His goodness, the Lord is sending His Vicar, this charismatic, enigmatic, beloved Pontiff our way. He wants us to be attentive, to be receptive, like Our Lady, to this opportunity, to this event, to this moment of grace.

So, pray hard, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. And be prepared to be uncomfortable!

[First shared on Facebook, Sept. 20, 2015] 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Early ecumenism right here in Athens

Our redoubtable journalist parishioner Pete, shared this little bit today. St. Joseph Parish in Athens is 142 years old, making it one of the oldest parishes in the Archdiocese.

It is remarkable to think that in an era of anti-Catholicism, the local citizenry of Athens gave financial support to build a Catholic church in town.

This is a snippet from the Northeast Georgian, from September 12, 1873.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Abortion, excommunication and mercy: a response to Damon Linker

Damon Linker, once an editor at the conservative magazine First Things, writes this thought-provoking piece in The Week today: How Pope Francis is perpetuating the Catholic Church's radical anti-abortion position.

Here's the main point.
Of all the extra-ecclesiastical sins, crimes, and acts of cruelty and intentional evil that the members of the human race have devised and enacted down through the millennia, only abortion rises to the status of a sin so grave that it leads to instantaneous expulsion from the church — an expulsion that can only be reversed when a local bishop makes a one-off exception or the Bishop of Rome declares a special time-limited period of absolution. 
An outside observer (and maybe a Catholic layperson or two) might see this as yet another example of how a church run exclusively by celibate bachelors just so happens to end up treating women as at once purer and requiring a greater degree of paternalistic oversight than men.
Therefore, he concludes, the truly merciful thing that the Holy Father could do would be to eliminate this singling out of abortion, and treat it, well, simply like any other homicide. (Incidentally, in the Code of Canon Law for Eastern Churches, all homicides incur a penalty of excommunication already -- that is, abortion isn't singled out.)

I first saw the article linked on the timeline of a Facebook friend, who added that Linker tends to engage Catholic doctrine before trying to critique it. That has been my experience as well. However, Linker misses some very important facts concerning the complicated reality of abortion and canon law.

First of all, there seems to be no awareness of the fact that the gesture the Pope seems to be making (and I put it thus, because there is some ambiguity regarding what he has stated that needs clarification. More on that below), is already the canonical practice at least in most of the United States and Canada, and possibly in other parts of the world. The Holy Father is universalizing (albeit, right now, just for the period of the Jubilee), what is the canonical and pastoral reality in many parts of the world, i.e. every priest who has the faculty to hear confessions, also receives the faculty to remit the penalty of latae sententiae excommunication incurred by the procuring of an abortion (or being involved formally in that crime).

There's really a whole complex raft of canonical issues that surround abortion -- the fact that it's a sin, as well as a canonical crime that carries a particular penalty: latae sententiae excommunication. This is often, but incorrectly, translated as "automatic excommunication" by even reputable Catholic sources. Latae sententiae - Latin for "the sentence having been carried out" - is one of the ways in which the penalty of excommunication is applied. (The other main way is what is known as ferendae sententiae, i.e. a declaration by competent authority that someone has incurred the penalty.)

Basically not every woman who commits the grave sin of abortion is actually excommunicated. The law gives many exceptions, for age (under 16), being forced or coerced (hardly uncommon), and being ignorant of the penalty. So if a woman truly does not know that there is the penalty of excommunication applicable, she does not incur the penalty. Of course, she commits an objective evil, and is guilty of grave sin. (However, remember too, that culpability for grave sin can be diminished by factors that diminish the freedom and knowledge of the subject.) Calling it "automatic" therefore, is a real stretch, as was pointed out to me by another priest-friend on social media this week.

Why is this one of the few so-called "reserved sins?" I don't know the history of abortion and the penalty of latae sententiae excommunication. I don't know if the 1983 code softened older penalties in the 1917 code (I'm not a canonist). However, one thing comes to mind. The law is a teacher, and the penalty may be there to underline the particular gravity of this sin, because it destroys life at its source (ab ortu). As always, the Church is very understanding of human frailty and merciful in how these penalties are applied and lifted.

For a good summary of the various canonical questions surrounding this issue, as well as the ambiguities in the papal statement (it was a letter, not a legislative text), I recommend this excellent piece from the Register, by canonist Benedict Nguyen. The eminent blogging canonist Dr. Ed Peters argues that latae sententiae excommunications are no longer useful in today's context. The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law reduced their number drastically. He suggests they should be removed entirely (for instance, here). It should also be pointed out that the Eastern Churches do not have a tradition of latae sententiae excommunication. (In the East, abortion remains a sin that requires the Bishop's permission for absolution, as far as I know. How that is handled practically, I do not know.) Peters has also argued that the Roman Church impose the penalty of excommunication (not latae sententiae) for all homicides (i.e. follow the canonical practice of the East) -- the opposite conclusion, somewhat, from what Linker argues. Peters' treatment of the story as it broke on Sept. 1 is also worth reading.

According to a friend who is a canonist, the procedure for a person seeking reconciliation in the case of those places where the priest does not have faculties (i.e. not in most parts of the the United States), would go something like this: If a woman (or anyone complicit in the act) approaches a confessor without the requisite faculties, they are advised to come back at a mutually convenient time (allowing for the preservation of anonymity), while the priest contacts the Bishop to get the necessary faculties, so he can lift the penalty and then impart absolution. (This would also, incidentally, be the procedure if a particular case required recourse the Apostolic Penitentiary.) Everything is handled in the internal forum, i.e. preserving anonymity (if the penitent so wishes), as well as the seal of the confessional.

On Tuesday, when this story broke, social media was abuzz with the various attempts (some truly awful) by the secular media to grapple with this issue, and a lot of us were trying to figure out what exactly was being conceded. My friend and fellow Atlanta priest, Fr. Joshua Allen at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center wrote a beautiful post on Facebook (which, though public, cannot be linked outside FB), the bottom line of which is this: for a woman (or anyone else) wondering if they have been forgiven of this sin in the confessional: yes you have. It is not the penitent's responsibility to understand these complicated details of canon law. God is always merciful, and the smallest bit of contrition is always met with mercy. Quote:
To any of you who have been confused or hurt by the reporting on the Pope's comments, I am truly sorry, as is basically every priest in the world. The last thing anyone would want, from Pope Francis to the newest priest on the block, is for someone to begin questioning whether their previous confessions and reception of God's mercy were real. The most recognizable attribute of our God is MERCY...there are no sins that cannot be forgiven when brought with a humble and contrite heart to one of God's ministers of mercy.
Finally, speaking as a confessor -- this sin comes up not infrequently. And more often than not it is a sin from the past, that has been repeatedly brought to the sacrament. The scars it leaves are truly horrendous, and there is such a need for healing. The various post-abortive ministries (such as Rachel's Vineyard) truly do great work. And it is in that vein, with the heart of a father, that the Holy Father wants to make it easier for women to receive the healing they need. That is eminently appropriate for a Jubilee of Mercy.

Disclaimer: I am a parish priest, not a canon lawyer. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

"I just got into an argument with a homosexual. So much for charity"

I had just gotten into my car after celebrating the monthly Holy Mass at a nearby nursing home. My phone was lit up. The first text I saw said, "Look up SCOTUS."

So, decision day was here. As social media exploded around me -- in chagrin, in outrage, in delight, in exultation, in triumph -- I quickly typed out the first of many Facebook commentaries for the day. Perhaps in another blog post I'll share these writing publicly. Perhaps not.

[At the end of the day I also noted that the overwhelming majority of my newsfeed was critical of the SCOTUS decision, reflecting the extent to which my online life is the echo chamber that we all solemnly recognize as being a Bad Thing. I know that some of my younger flock -- college kids on fire for the Lord and their faith -- were facing the anguish of being completely out of step with their peers, and one of my many incursions online today was to encourage them.]

A little while later I got a text from a seminarian friend, in a parish and a diocese that will remain unnamed. "I just got into an argument with a homosexual. So much for charity." I urged him to listen, and not argue. "Go apologize. Let him know that his clergy love him." I said a prayer for this interaction, and went about the rest of my affairs for the day.

A few hours later, another text message. "Well, after he spoke for an hour, and cried almost the whole time, there was a productive encounter." The details of the conversation are absolutely no one's business online, of course. That this conversation happened at all is both beautiful and providential. In all the discourse and verbiage that has been poured out this day, the news of this little encounter, this interaction, buoyed me, gave me hope. The Lord was at work!

I do think this is what our Holy Father urges us to all the time -- to accompaniment. Walking with the other. Listening.
We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives. (Evangelii Gaudium, 171) 
One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel. Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow. (Evangelii Gaudium, 172) 
None of this of course means -- as so many both inside and outside the Church suggest -- that we ignore the truth of God's plan for human sexuality, for marriage, or the intrinsic sinfulness of all sexual activity outside marriage, including homosexual activity. [Inside the Church, this is the fruit of decades of a pastoral practice that has been an utter disaster, which is to say, a near complete lack of evangelization, of catechesis, as well as the poison of dissent and moral corruption. Indeed, as one of my priest friends pointed out, today's decision was made by an overwhelmingly Catholic Supreme Court!]
Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father. (Evangelii Gaudium, 170)
If there is no concrete experience of love, of acceptance, of true spiritual accompaniment, in the Church -- where else will those who struggle with SSA, or identify as LGBT, go, but to the secular world that offers an embrace and acceptance? No one wants to live like a pariah, in shame, in hiding. [We should certainly understand this, as we fear that fate coming to us, to our institutions, as the juggernaut of social change now considers our carefully reasoned positions to be nothing but gussied up hate and bigotry, to be marginalized, eviscerated, and utterly demolished.]

How will anyone actually listen to what we have to say? How will they actually hear us as we lay out the beautiful vision of life in Christ? We cannot simply be content to shout the truth and then complacently tell each other that they just won't listen, so clearly their hearts are hardened and they have rejected God. I don't think we can let ourselves off the hook that easily. That is not the proclamation of the Good News at all.

If we have experienced great mercy, then we must also show that to others. The Lord Himself says that (Mt. 18:21-35). In a discourse I come back to frequently, from back in 2001, in a meeting with the lay movement Communion & Liberation, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said:
We cannot understand this dynamic of encounter which brings forth wonder and adherence if it has not been triggered–forgive me the use of this word–by mercy. Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord. ... however, forcing things a bit, I dare to say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.
We must bear this mercy of the Lord, this call to repentance and to true life in Christ, fearlessly, and lovingly, to a wounded world. It is only out of this encounter that a true conversion, a turning of life, is born.

May there be many more such conversations, and encounters, in our parishes, in this Jubilee of Mercy ahead.

May this day not be one of sadness, for the victory is the Lord's, but one of a commitment to a renewed effort at sharing the joy of the Gospel, of human life lived fully and truly, in Christ. Let us always turn to Our Lady, always trusting in her promise, that Her Immaculate Heart will, indeed, triumph.

Courageous people who have embraced the Lord, and His Church.

The Courage Apostolate
The Desire of the Everlasting Hills

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Throwback Thursday -- a bit of parish history

From the redoubtable Pete Konenkamp, one of the managers of the St. Joseph Parish Facebook page.

On the ground ecumenism from the late 1960s. A long-time parishioner (who's been at St. Joseph since 1959) was just telling me about this incident earlier in the week! According to him, this arrangement didn't last too long, however. Apparently folks weren't too comfortable having Mass at First Christian. I didn't quite catch what happened afterward ...